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Day Trip to Fujisan

Mount Fuji, the tallest peak in Japan at 3776 meters (12,388 ft.) is still classified an active volcano although it has remained dormant since its last eruption in 1707. Located 100 km (62 miles) southwest of Tokyo, it is the most popular tourist attraction in Japan, attracting over 200,000 visitors each year to climb its slopes. Mount Fuji or Fujisan was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013 for its universal sacred and artistic value. (According to the World Heritage website (https://whc.unesco.org/en/faq/19) “World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.”) In my opinion, Fujisan is certainly worthy of protection for future generations.

We began seeing views of the mountain soon after departing from Tokyo although there are views of the mountain from within the city as well. (You’ll see one later in this post.)

Tomo driving with view of Mt Fuji

Our friend, Tomo, took us first to a restaurant at Lake Yamanakako, the largest and closest of the Fuji Five Lakes at the base of Mount Fuji. The #1 ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor in Yamanakako-mura, Koshu Hoto Kosaku, serves delicious hoto, a regional dish made with flat noodles and vegetables in a miso soup. Patrons remove their shoes inside the door of this traditional style restaurant before sitting on tatami cushions. (Click on the photos below to see a larger version.)

Following a delicious lunch, we drove around stopping at numerous viewing spots to take in the captivating beauty of Fujisan and to capture some of it in photos.

Lake Yamanakako and Fujisan

As we walked the trail along Lake Yamanakako, Lori even made friends with an especially engaging beagle.

Upon our return to Tokyo, the timing was perfect for a visit to the Tokyo Tower. Modeled after the Eiffel Tower and built in 1958, the Tokyo Tower is 13 meters taller than the Paris version and an outstanding way to enjoy views of the largest city in the world.

Tokyo Tower

After purchasing tickets for around $10 each and a quick elevator ride to the main deck, we arrived in time to enjoy Tokyo at sunset from high above the city.

Jim, Lori, and Rick at Entrance to Tokyo Tower

View from Tokyo Tower
View from Tokyo Tower
View from Tokyo Tower
View from Tokyo Tower

Jim chose to go to the top deck where he captured Mount Fuji in the distance at sunset, definitely my favorite photo of all we took from Tokyo Tower.

Mount Fuji at sunset from Tokyo Tower

He also took photos of each direction from the top deck which gives you an even better impression of the vastness of Tokyo.

We left the tower just after sunset but I’m sure the views of the lights of Tokyo after dark would have been amazing as well.

Tomo delivered us safely back to our hotel where Lori and I visited the women’s bath before calling it a night. The next day we would see a few final sights including a walk through Old Tokyo before Tomo delivered us to the airport for our flight back to the U.S.

Based on events from March 2019.

Categories: Japan, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Tokyo with Tomo Day 2

Our friend, Tomo, met us at our hotel, Mitsui Garden, to show us more sights in Tokyo on day 2 of our visit. If you missed the first two posts about Tomo and Tokyo, you can find them here and here.

The public transport system in Tokyo is world renowned. I’ve read it’s quite easy to use but for us, it couldn’t have been easier because we had only to follow Tomo as he shepherded us from place to place. These photos in a train station were taken later in the day but they’ll give you an idea of our experience.

Our hotel was located very close to the Gotanda Railway Station and Tomo led Lori, Rick, Jim, and me there to take the train to our first tourist sight at Shibuya Crossing. It was raining so we purchased umbrellas but unfortunately, Jim and I only bought one to share which he immediately commandeered so I was wet and crabby whenever it rained throughout the day.

Reputed to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world with as many as 3000 people crossing at once during peak times, Shibuya Scramble Crossing is a well-known tourist attraction in Tokyo. The rain may have kept other tourists away, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm one bit. The second floor of the Starbucks which you can see behind Tomo and Jim in the photo below is a popular spot for photos from above.

Nearby Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken was constructed in 1920 and reconstructed in 1958 after it burned during WW2. The 122nd emperor of Japan, Emperor Meiji and his consort reigned from February 3, 1867 until his death on July 30, 1912. He led the modernization of Japan, ending feudalism and 250 years of isolation. The emperor and his wife were prolific poets, having composed over 130,000 waka (traditional Japanese poems of 31 syllables) between them. One of the poems written by the emperor follows:

Were we to neglect

The completion of a task

Because it was hard,

Nothing would be done at all

In this human world of ours.

In order to pay respect when visiting the shrine, one engages in ritual cleansing of the hands and mouth at the Temizuya (font). Fill the dipper with water; rinse your left hand then your right hand; pour water into the palm of your left hand to rinse your mouth; rinse the handle with the remaining water and return the dipper to its original position.

Sake brewers throughout Japan offer barrels of sake wrapped in straw every year to honor Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. In the spirit of world peace and friendship, wineries from the Bourgogne region of France offer barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Jingu.

On our way to the Imperial Palace, Tomo took the photo below of Jim and me, Lori and Rick in front of Tokyo Railway Station.

Jim, Laura, Lori, and Rick at Tokyo Station

The Imperial Palace, a 10 minute walk from Tokyo Station, is located on the former site of Edo Castle and has been the residence for Japan’s imperial family since the emperor moved here from Kyoto following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Edo Castle was home to the Tokugawa Shoguns who ruled Japan under military government from 1603 until 1867 when the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was ousted in a coup which restored imperial rule to Japan.

A popular tourist attraction in Tokyo, free tours of the Imperial Palace grounds are offered twice a day but require a ticket which can be obtained online here or in-person on a first-come first-serve basis. We queued for tickets and then waited in the Visitor House for the guided tour to begin while watching an informational video. The tour is offered in English, takes about 75 minutes, and does not go inside any of the palace buildings. Despite the limitations and the dreary weather, we found it interesting and informative.

Following our tour, we were feeling a little peckish so Tomo led us to Nemuro Hanamaru at Sapporo Station for conveyor belt sushi. A friend who had visited Japan told me about it and I was keen to give it a try. All the foods and drinks circle around the restaurant on a conveyor belt and the patrons reach out and take whatever appeals to them. The plates are color coded and your bill is figured by the number and color of the plates.

Our last stop of the day was a walk thru the Imperial Hotel. The original, designed by famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was constructed beginning in 1917. In 1968 the hotel was replaced with a new structure but the main lobby was dismantled and moved to Meiji Mura, an open air architectural museum in Aichi Prefecture. Although nothing of the original remained in this location, we were interested in seeing where the original hotel stood because of our connection to it. You see, we were visiting from Mason City, Iowa, the home of the Historic Park Inn, the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world. Although I’m no expert on architecture, my impression was the new Imperial Hotel follows the Prairie School but in a fresher more modern style. Compare my photos below to the original.

Our first full day touring Tokyo was fascinating and I’m sure we couldn’t have accomplished so much on our own. We ended the day excited to see what day 3 with Tomo would bring. Please join us next time.

Based on events from March 2019.

Categories: Japan, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Touring Tokyo with Tomo

I gave our friend, Tomo, a list of sights we’d like to see in Tokyo but told him to use his own judgement. Since we had only three days and no knowledge of public transportation in a city of nearly 14 million and a metro area in excess of 37 million, it was essential to have a plan and I was grateful not to be in charge of it. In the end, we were delighted with his choices and the efficient use of our time.

Tomo picked up husband Jim, friends Lori and Rick, and me at Narita Airport following our flight from Singapore and whisked us off to Mitsui Garden Hotel Gotanda. He had approved our choice of location in the ward of Shinagawa in advance and we were exceedingly pleased with our accommodations.

Tomo driving us to our hotel
Mitsui Garden Hotel

We were so impressed with Mitsui Garden, I want to share more photos with you. (Click on each photo to expand.) I am not, however, receiving any remuneration for my rave review.

The lobby and lounge area including an outdoor garden were attractive and comfortable.

Our room, though small, was well-appointed, clean, comfortable, and well worth the total price of $157 per night.

Breakfast, included in the price of the hotel, was generous and delicious. We like to eat a big breakfast, have a snack or protein bar for lunch while sightseeing, and enjoy a nice dinner at a restaurant. It saves time and money to eat one meal out. This breakfast fortified us for the day.

But two surprises made this hotel the best ever. First was the public bath in the hotel. Lori and I were keen to try it out but the men voiced a hard pass. The public bath or sento is a very old tradition in Japan. Originating in the 6th century for cleansing the body and spirit according to Buddhist teaching, by the 12th century the wealthy had also adopted the ritual. Finally in the late 16th century the masses, who didn’t have bathtubs in their homes, adopted the custom of communal bathing. At one time sento etiquette allowed mixed bathing but eventually the sexes were separated. Other rules of etiquette require the removal of shoes before entering the bath house and cleansing oneself before entering the bath. No soap or washing is allowed in the bath itself. The bath is for soaking, relaxing, and conversation. Honestly, Lori and I were relieved to be the only ones in the women’s bath so we didn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of sharing the bath with others while nude. No photos are allowed in the public bath so click here to see photos on the hotel website. The photo below is Lori and me ready to go to the public bath in the spa clothing provided by the hotel.

Lori and I on our way to the public bath

The other surprise at the hotel was the toilet, or I should say the Shower Toilet, as I read it was called on the instructions. It looked just like toilets we’re accustomed to but it was actually bidet equipped.

I’ve seen bidets all over the world but I’ve never used one and now that I have, I’m a believer. In my opinion, no bathroom should be without this remarkable hygiene equipment. I think I was always a little put off by the fact that the bidets I’d seen previously didn’t have a seat or instructions for use. This one had both. Ours at the hotel included a heated seat, too, which was a nice addition. I’ve read you can also get a dryer on the bidet to totally eliminate the need for toilet paper which, you may have noticed, has gotten pretty expensive. File this under TMI, if you must, but I’m telling you the Shower Toilet was a Eureka moment for me.

We first arrived at our hotel late in the day and Lori wasn’t feeling well so she and Rick stayed in while Tomo took Jim and me out to dinner. For our first meal in Japan, we went to Ootoya for authentic home style Japanese comfort food. Ootoya serves an extensive menu of teishoku which is similar to prix fixe, a set number of courses at a fixed price. Teishoku consists of miso soup, rice, a main dish and several sides. It is served on a tray and is typical of the meals that Japanese eat at home.

Street outside our hotel

Following dinner, we returned to our hotel for an early night. The next day we had a full schedule of sightseeing which included Shibuya Crossing, Meiji Shrine, the Imperial Palace, conveyor belt sushi, and the Imperial Hotel. Please come back and I’ll tell you all about it.

Based on events from March 2019.

Categories: Japan, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Time with Tomo

Before I share our experiences in Japan with our friend, Tomo, let me tell you how we became friends. Jim and I were at a fundraiser in the summer of 2018 when a former colleague asked me if I knew anyone who might be willing to house a Japanese student who was attending the local community college. I immediately responded we might be willing and dragged him over to share the story with Jim. He told us Tomo arrived at the Mason City airport on a bitterly cold evening in January 2018 looking for public transportation to the dorms at North Iowa Area Community College. A local architect explained there was no public transportation to the college at that hour but in the tradition of Iowa Nice, Randy offered him a ride which began their friendship. Tomo lived in the dorms for a bit, then shared an apartment with another international student but what he really wanted was to experience living with an American family. Well, Randy told Mark who told us and the rest, as they say, is history.

In a brief interview with Tomo he explained he chose NIACC because his research revealed it to be a high quality program at a relatively low cost. We explained our kids were grown and live in Des Moines so it wouldn’t be a family experience in the sense of parents with children at home, and we had a young political staffer currently staying with us. I’m not sure how much of this information Tomo understood as his English was limited and our Japanese was non-existent, but I’m sure we were the only offer on the table so we arranged for him to join our household in July.

Tomo told us he had a strong desire to see the world and he took several trips during the six months he stayed with us. Jim and I are also travelers (or we were in the Before Times, before COVID, that is) so we were gone part of the time, too. When our schedules permitted, however, we tried to share as many experiences with Tomo as possible and he seemed to enjoy most of them except maybe watching the TV show Ozark which he soon gave up on.

He insisted Jim let him mow the lawn and when I asked him about his mask, he explained it kept out contaminants. Wise pre-COVID lesson… Our 20 X 40 garden impressed him and he willingly helped Jim harvest our abundant crops. He even seemed to like shoveling snow but I suspect that enjoyment may have worn off after one winter.

Jim and I have always eaten dinner at the table together and we welcomed Tomo to join us. We cooked our usual fare and Tomo seemed to appreciate everything he ate. He introduced us to the polite Japanese customs of saying “Itadakimasu” (Let’s eat) before meals and “Gochisosama deshita” (thank you for the meal) following the meal. To hear the correct pronunciation, just click on the word. Tomo also took his turn at cooking and we enjoyed many memorable meals together. The sushi was exceptional!!

Of course, we went out to a number of restaurants as well. Tomo especially liked Mexican food so the Pastime Gardens in Mason City was an obvious choice. Kate even taught him how to cook some of her specialties and shared some culinary secrets with him but, try as we might, we couldn’t get him to spill the beans with us. The iconic Northwestern Steak House in Mason City was another definite favorite.

We took a couple of short excursions around Iowa. Friends near St Ansgar hosted a musical concert in their home so he accompanied us there and we stopped at a historic site, Fort Severson, on the way.

Tomo at Fort Severson in St Ansgar

In Des Moines we visited the State Capitol, the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, the New Oriental Food Store, and Fong’s Pizza.

When Tomo wasn’t attending school, traveling, or performing volunteer work locally, we introduced him to leisure activities including my mahjong group (they loved him), tailgating at Iowa State football games, and Friday night wine drinking with my girlfriends although he didn’t drink. He accompanied us to a Christmas party hosted by friends and Jim even took him to a volleyball game at NIACC and they joined our sons in Ames for a wrestling meet at Iowa State.

But this rendition of Happy Birthday performed by Tomo and our neighbor, Brian, ranks right up at the top of memorable experiences.

Brian and Tomo perform Happy Birthday

Arigato gozaimasu, Tomo and Brian.

We enjoyed our time with Tomo so much that when he left in January 2019 to return to Japan, saying goodbye was difficult. It was made easier, however, knowing we would travel to Japan in March on our way home from a cruise around Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Tomo even helped me find our hotel in Tokyo. When I asked him about a hotel I was looking at, he laughed and said, “You don’t want to stay in that area. That’s where the yakuza and red light district are.” Yakuza are Japanese organized crime or gangsters and you know what red light district is. Thankfully, I had Tomo to steer us in the right direction!

Saying sayonara

We took Tomo to the airport on a bitterly cold morning one year after he had arrived in Mason City, Iowa. I hope he found his experience valuable. I know we did.

In my next several posts, I’ll share our experiences with Tomo in Japan.

Based on events in July 2018 – January 2019.

Categories: Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

More Singapore

After an ample breakfast at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Clarke Quay, we set off to Marina Bay to see the attractions we missed the previous day. Our first stop, the iconic Merlion, the official mascot of Singapore, is a water spewing 8.6 meter tall statue of a mythical creature which is half lion half fish. Unfortunately it was shrouded in screens and tarps for refurbishment so we took photos of the nearby small replica.

The views from the Esplanade of Marina Bay and the modern buildings surrounding it were all worth a second visit, however. I was especially drawn to the Art and Science Museum which looked to me like an open clamshell and the Helix, a nearby pedestrian bridge, inspired by strands of DNA.

Marina Bay Sands with Art & Science Museum and the Helix to the left

Since our HoHo ticket wasn’t expired, we hopped on a bus on the red route to catch a ride to Little India although we could have used the mass rapid transit system, if necessary. Little India presented quite a contrast to Marina Bay. The neighborhood was vibrant and colorful with small historic shophouses rather than the new skyscrapers of Marina Bay but still very well-kept and clean.

Indians first arrived in 1819 with Sir Stamford Raffles who established a trading settlement for the British East India Company. They soon congregated in the Serangoon Road area where they engaged in brick making, quarrying lime, and raising cattle. Today the Indian culture continues to flourish in this neighborhood.

Named for the goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, dating from 1855, according to a Singapore Government Agency website, Roots. We removed our shoes as required and joined the worshippers inside.

Leaving Little India, we found the nearby neighborhood of Kampong Glam, the Muslim Quarter. This area was ceded to Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah in the 1820s by Sir Stamford Raffles as part of the deal struck handing over Singapore to the British East India Company. The Sultan soon built a palace and moved over 600 family and friends to the area. The palace was followed by a mosque built in 1824 to provide the Sultan’s entourage with a place to worship. Both have been replaced and rebuilt several times but the Malay Heritage Center occupies the palace built in the 1840s and the present Sultan Mosque was built in 1928.

Inside the Malay Visitor Center, we found a temporary exhibit titled Undangan ke Baitullah: Pilgrims’ Stories from the Malay World to Makkah. Hajj, Arabic for pilgrimage, is the requirement for all able Muslims to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The exhibition presents hajj through the personal accounts of people making the journey. As the departure point for the steamship journey to Mecca from Southeast Asia, Singapore has played a major role in the religious history of the region.

After a stroll down picturesque pedestrian Bussorah and Arab Streets, home to quaint shophouses and tempting international cuisine, we were ready to move on to one last ethnic area of the city.

China Town is the largest ethnic neighborhood in Singapore. Although there is evidence of the Chinese trading in Singapore before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles, Chinese immigration exploded with the establishment of the colony. The city plan devised by Raffles in 1822 located the Chinese inhabitants south of the Singapore River where China Town is still found today. My reading indicates the area was sordid, dark, and dirty with narrow lanes where Chinese were crowded together in poor living conditions among legal opium dens and illegal gambling houses and brothels. Today the neighborhood is bright and welcoming and, like all of Singapore, clean. We visited soon after Lunar New Year and many of the decorations were still evident. As you can probably guess when you see the photos, it was the Year of the Pig.

China Town

One sight which piqued my curiosity was the large spiky fruit sold in produce stalls for $15 each. I found out they are durians, a tropical fruit grown in southeast Asia. The popular fruit is expensive because demand exceeds supply. I’m told it’s delicious but the smell is terrible. In fact, they smell so bad they’re not allowed on public transport in Singapore.

When we found Food Street in China Town, we felt a little peckish so why not try some authentic cuisine from one of the many hawkers? Fried Kway Teow Mee is a popular stir-fried dish with flat rice noodles which is cheap and tasty. Jim and I shared a plate for around $5 and it was plenty for both of us.

Honestly, we barely scratched the surface of Singapore in two days. We could have spent several more days and enjoyed many more attractions. If you’re thinking about traveling to Asia but feel hesitant, Singapore is a great place to begin your exploration. It’s culturally diverse; safe and clean; has great food, shopping, and nightlife; and has many gardens and a tropical climate. I would welcome the opportunity to return and explore further.

But for now, we had a plane to catch to meet a friend in Tokyo.

Based on events in March 2019.

Categories: Asia, Singapore, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Semarang: City of Jamu

The largest port city of Central Java Province in Indonesia with a population of more than 1.5 million, Semarang is the main producer of Jamu which is why it’s called City of Jamu. You may be thinking, “What is Jamu?” A traditional Indonesian medicinal tonic, Jamu is made from herbs, spices, and fruits. I didn’t know this, however, until we returned home. I could kick myself when I travel somewhere and find out later I missed something major like this. When I read it’s on menus everywhere throughout Indonesia, I was stunned. How had we missed it?

Then when I saw the pictures and description, it looked and sounded so healthy and tropical, I was determined to give it a try. Since it’s not on menus here or sold in stores, I’d have to make my own. After considerable research, I settled on a recipe which I revised to substitute turmeric powder for turmeric root. I have no idea where to get turmeric root and I have the powder on hand. I created the recipe below then reduced the proportions down by 75% so I’d have 1 cup of Jamu rather than 4 cups just in case we didn’t like it.

FYI: I used the plastic squeeze container of fresh ginger rather than grinding my own. With turmeric powder and the fresh ground ginger, I didn’t have to strain my Jamu after simmering either.

Jamu simmering for 25 minutes

When it was done, I tasted it, added more lime juice and more honey, and tasted it again. I added still more honey but it didn’t help. I gave Jim a shot glass full. He took a sip and was noncommittal but he was in no hurry to finish it which spoke volumes.

Jamu

Apparently, the key word in the description was medicinal and I should have paid more attention to that word. It tasted strongly of turmeric with a hint of ginger. I didn’t taste much lime and I don’t think you could add enough honey to add sweetness. This concoction is widely used by Indonesians to maintain good health and I’ve read the medicinal properties are currently attracting even more attention as a preventative and/or remedy for COVID-19. Although there is no scientific evidence to support this view, anything that improves your immune system can’t be all bad–even if it tastes bad.

Jamu wasn’t the only thing we missed in Semarang. We missed much more because we hadn’t done enough research in advance. One port of many on a 19 day NCL cruise aboard the Norwegian Jewel, we hadn’t booked an excursion in Semarang. The excursion to Borobudur, the largest Budhist temple in the world, appealed to us but the travel time on the bus was 2 hours each way and the cost was around $150 per person, neither of which appealed to us. It’s always a risk to book a private excursion even though the cost is lower since the cruise ship makes it clear they won’t wait for you if you’re delayed for any reason. Instead, we opted to explore the Old Town (Kota Lama) of the city on our own.

View of Semarang from the Norwegian Jewel
Containers, mosque, and refinery welcomed us to Semarang

Not realizing we couldn’t just walk from the ship, we were unhappily surprised to learn the cruise line had a deal with local taxis to drive us to Old Town. The cost was $40 for the four of us to go one way and round trip was an additional $40. We weren’t sure how long we would want to stay and we didn’t want to commit to meet the driver at a pre-arranged time so we declined the roundtrip option. The guy who worked the deal assured us we wouldn’t find a taxi later to return us but we decided to take a chance.

The driver, who spoke no English, dropped us at Blenduk Church in Old Town. Built by the Dutch in 1753 and remodeled in 1894, this Protestant church is the oldest in Central Java. The hundred year old pipe organ is still used in church services today.

Blenduk Church
Interior with pipe organ
Interior of Blenduk Church

The garden in front of the church provided welcome shade for tourists including these school girls.

Garden in front of Blenduk Church

As we looked around wondering which way to walk to see more of the Old Town, we decided to follow other tourists thinking they might know where they were going. We walked and walked in the heat and humidity but saw nothing which looked like Tawang Railway Station or Lawang Sewu, Thousand Door Building, the two historic sights we had hoped to see. We asked several locals along the way showing them our map but no one spoke English.

When we reached busy streets, we realized we’d left the Old Town and, rather than turn around and go back, we abandoned our plan to see more there.

We saw a western-looking hotel and decided to stop in for cold drink and hopefully, a wifi connection. Although no one in the New Metro Hotel spoke English, we were able to communicate our needs and soon we had a Bintang with wifi for a little over $3 each including tax and service.

Lobby in New Metro Hotel
Esqure Lounge at New Metro Hotel

Following our refreshments, we managed, in spite of the language barrier, to convey our need for a taxi to the staff at the front desk, no small task considering we also needed to obtain local currency to pay the taxi driver. Thankfully, the staff were very kind and helpful and before long the taxi appeared and returned us to the port. Amazingly, the return trip cost about $3 for the four of us.

We later talked to a young couple from Wisconsin onboard the ship who had booked a private excursion which broke down on the return. The bus from the cruise line’s excursion stopped to pick them up because the passengers on board chanted, “Pick them up, pick them up” until they stopped. They never would have made it back in time if that bus hadn’t stopped. What a great adventure story with a happy ending!

While we didn’t see much of Semarang, we did experience the bustle of a busy Asian city and the friendliness and helpfulness of the Indonesian people. Until next time, terima kasih (thank you).

Based on events from March 2019.

Categories: cruise, Indonesia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Suksma Bali

We had arranged for a private tour on day 2 in Bali with Bali Paradise Tours as recommended by Toni and Brad, the delightful Australian couple we met in Darwin, Australia. Since we prefer to book directly with local providers, we were happy to learn about this independent tour operator.  The owner and guide, Wayan Yasa, was there to meet us as arranged and helped us narrow down our interests to use our time most efficiently. Although the island is small, the traffic is challenging and we didn’t want to spend the majority of our time in the vehicle. In the end, we left it up to Wayan’s best judgment and we were happy with the results.

We took off in Wayan’s large, comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle and headed first to the iconic Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK) Cultural Park. Completed in August 2018 after 28 years of construction, this collossal monument of the mythical bird and national symbol of Indonesia, Garuda, ridden by the Hindu God Wisnu is decorated with kencana (gold), hence the name GWK Cultural Park. Taller than the Statue of Liberty and visible from many locations throughout Bali, the monument stands 121 meters (397 ft) tall and is reportedly the third tallest statue in the world.

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GWK statue from a distance

After we purchased our tickets for 125,000 rupiah each ($8.46), Wayan loaded us onto a golf cart for the ride to the statue. I’m not sure how far the monument was from the entrance to the park but the golf cart was a welcome relief in the blazing hot sunshine accompanied by high humidity. We didn’t complain about the heat but sunscreen, a hat, and water were absolutely essential!

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Jim, Lori, Wayan with our golf cart
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Lori, Jim, and me in front of the GWK statue
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GWK statue

Notice the use of black and white buffalo check fabric called Saput Poleng in the photo below indicating balance to create harmony according to the philosophy of Rwa Bhineda. (You can read more in my previous post here.)

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Interior of the monument
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Decorated entrance to the elevator

It’s possible to take the elevator up into the monument for a view of Bali from the top but the sign at the elevator indicated it was closed for maintenance during our visit.

The enormous cultural park also includes venues for events, an amphitheater, daily cultural performances, restaurants, and shopping but we were ready to move on.

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Leaving GWK Cultural Park

As we drove, Wayan told us he was the oldest child in his family. In Bali the oldest male or female is always named Wayan, Putu, or Gede; the second-born is Made, Kadek, or Nengah; the third child is Nyoman or Komang; and the fourth is always Ketut. (You may recall the Balinese medicine man in Eat Pray Love was named Ketut.) If the family has more than four children, they simply begin the rotation again. That information explained our experience upon disembarkation from our cruise ship. A number of guides offered us tours to which we responded, “We’re looking for Wayan; we booked with him.” Many laughed and reponded, “My name is Wayan” which, in retrospect, was probably true. We got quite a chuckle out of that.

I asked Wayan why we saw so much discarded rubbish everywhere. He responded that it’s actually much better than it used to be and it’s an issue of education. The people need to be taught not to discard their garbage on the roadways which is an effort the government is working on. In fairness, we did see many motorcycles carrying large loads of plastic bottles for recycling so there is an outlet for recycling. I mention this not as a criticism of Bali but to prepare other tourists. I’m always disheartened when I visit areas where the environment seems neglected and I was happy to hear about the government efforts in this area.

We stopped next at Lumbung Sari Coffee Plantation for a tour and a free tasting. Even Jim, who is not a coffee drinker, enjoyed several of the coffees, teas, and cocoa.

Tasting area at Lumbung Sari
Coffee beans at Lumbung Sari
Woman roasting luwak coffee beans
Assortment of coffees, teas, and cocoa for tasting

Lumbung Sari also serves the famous Luwak coffee which required a fee to taste but we were game to try it for a mere 50,000 rp ($3.40). Luwak coffee is made from partially digested coffee beans defecated by the Asian palm civet. Think “cat-poo-chino.”

Asian Palm Civet resting in a cage

Reputed to be the most expensive coffee in the world, it, honestly, didn’t taste any better (or worse!) than any other coffee but the idea of coffee made from poop is kind of a turn-off regardless of its reputation or cost. The employee accompanying us explained that the civets, which are nocturnal, roam freely around the coffee plantation and forage for coffee berries during the night and rest in the cages during daylight. When I later read treatment of the luwak (civet) is considered unethical because they are confined to cages and their diet is restricted to coffee berries to produce more of the kopi luwak (civet coffee), I was glad we didn’t buy any to take home. We did help the local economy, however, by purchasing another Bali coffee, mango tea, and cocoa to take home to our children.

Shop at Lumbung Sari
Lori and Jim shopping at Lumbung Sari
Kopi Luwak (civet coffee) purchased by another cruise passenger

We told Wayan the one “must see” on our list was a beautiful Bali beach. After all, isn’t that what Bali is known for? He took us to Padang Padang Beach which was also featured in the movie, Eat Pray Love. For a nominal fee of 10,000 rupiah ($.67) we entered the beach while Wayan waited for us in the parking lot across the street.

View from street level to the beach

As we descended the stairs to the beach, we were charmed by an added bonus, long-tailed macaques everywhere.

Lori descending the stairs to beach
One of many log-tailed macaques we saw as we passed through the temple on the descent

When we reached the beach, it was even better than the view from the street. Padang Padang, also called Pantai Labuan Sait, exceeded my expectations with the surrounding cliffs and jungle giving it a feeling of seclusion and intimacy. Reportedly one of the better surfing areas, no surfers were in the water while we were there, but the board rentals confirmed surfing was an option.

Padang Padang Beach
Looking at the street level bridge from Padang Padang Beach
Jim and me at Padang Padang Beach
Lori at Padang Padang Beach

We’ve visited many beautiful beaches around the world and I would place Padang Padang among the best. As we headed back up to the street level, we couldn’t resist more photos of the macaques.

Jim made a new friend
The climb tells you this was not a handicap accessible beach

After the heat of the beach, Wayan was waiting for us with cold drinks and aircon. What could be better than that?

Bintang break

We had an enjoyable day with Wayan. He was knowledgeable and personable and shared lots of interesting tales about his experiences as well as tidbits of his personal wisdom such as “No money, no honey,” meaning nothing is free. He also taught us a little Balinese language which is different from Indonesian. Suksma means thank you and mewali is you’re welcome.

Wayan and Jim

After Wayan delivered us back to the port, he called to ask Jim to come back for something he’d forgotten. Jim went out to meet Wayan and returned with a gift. Wayan presented him with the traditional male Balinese headgear, an udeng. Jim was surprised and thrilled.

Jim says suksma for his udeng

While we had only a small taste of Bali, it was a good first experience. I’ve read many tourists visit Bali only for the weather, beaches, and parties and never leave their hotel grounds. We experienced so much more than that. For all we experienced, Suksma, Bali. (Thank you, Bali.)

Based on events from February 2019.

Categories: Asia, cruise, Indonesia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Finding Balance in Bali

Prior to our visit, I pictured Bali as a serene South Pacific paradise with stunning beaches, volcanic mountains, lush jungles, fragrant tropical flowers, historic rice terraces, and Hindu temples. Honestly, I pictured something like Hawaii on steroids at a fraction of the cost. Admittedly, my expectations were influenced by the movie Eat, Pray, Love in which Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts, rode her bicycle along peaceful roads bordered by verdant, palm-covered landscapes, swam in inviting turquoise waters, and generally enjoyed life in a tranquil Shangri-la. As it turned out, some of my preconceived notions were confirmed but by the end of our brief 2-day visit, we were better educated.

Bali is actually in the Indian Ocean rather than the South Pacific. It is one of 6000 inhabited islands in the nation of Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world comprised of a total of 17,508 islands. In terms of population, Indonesia is ranked number 4 in the world with 267 million people dispersed throughout the islands and 4.2 million of them reside in the province of Bali. The island of Bali is the 11th largest in Indonesia measuring 230 miles (370 km) in circumference or 95 miles (153 km) from east to west by 69 miles (112 km) from north to south. It is roughly half the size of the Big Island of Hawaii. Of the 147 volcanoes sprinkled throughout Indonesia, 76 are active and 2 of those are located on Bali.

As our tender boat delivered us from the Norwegian Jewel to the cruise port in Benoa, Bali, we were immediately confronted with massive pollution in the bay.

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I was disappointed to discover Bali was not the pristine paradise I imagined. Seeing the debris reminded me of the television commercial for 4ocean, an organization started by two young surfers who saw the extensive plastic washed up on the shores in Bali and decided to do something about it. Although the organization has recovered 8,693,079 lbs worldwide since 2017, there’s plenty more where that came from. Go to their website and help if you can.

Fortunately, our poor first impression was countered by the traditional Balinese dancers who welcomed us to Bali. Following their performance, we were excited to experience more of this exotic culture on our bus tour to the Bali Terraces and Ulun Danu Temple.

Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world. In Bali, however, 83% of the population is Balinese Hindu, which is a blend of Indian Hinduism, Buddhism, and pre-existing local beliefs including animism, the belief that everything has a soul or spirit. Throughout our tour, we observed how religion permeates all aspects of Balinese life and culture.

As we departed from the port and entered the city, we observed exotic architecture obscured by electrical wires; lots of signs, many of which had to do with the upcoming election; more debris; statues of Hindu gods; offerings to the deities; and congested traffic accompanied by roaring motors and blaring horns. Bali was, from beginning to end, an island full of contrasts.

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Balinese architecture

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Signs, traffic, and the ubiquitous KFC

The Titi Banda Statue on the outskirts of Denpasar was only one of the magnificent statues we admired. Rising 10m (33 ft) above the junction of several main roads, this massive monument depicts the mythical epic Ramayana in which Prince Rama rescues his wife, Sita, held captive by Ravana in Lanka.  Rama, aided by his monkey troops built the Titi Banda (stone bridge) to Lanka to mount the rescue attack. The photo below taken by my friend, Lori, from the bus is only a portion of this enormous monument.

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Titi Banda Statue along the road on the outskirts of Denpasar

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More statues along the roadway

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Debris along the roadside

From the windows of the bus, we saw Balinese offerings everywhere. Expressions of gratitude to the gods, these offerings vary in size from a grain of rice on a banana leaf to ornate towers of fruit, flowers, and sweets. The small daily offering called canang sari and banten are placed on small shrines or even on the ground. The shrine in the photo below held offerings to both the higher and lower spirits to ensure harmony and balance.  IMG_7559

Tall decorated poles, called penjor, also contained offerings. When I spotted an assortment of plain bamboo poles, I knew they must be the undecorated version waiting for ornamentation. The poles are decorated with coconut leaves, fruit, grain, and flowers for festivals or religious holidays and placed outside homes and businesses. Partway up the pole is a basket or platform where an offering is placed.

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Bamboo poles

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Penjor

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Penjor and offering

We noticed black and white buffalo checked fabric called Saput Poleng on umbrellas, wrapped around trees, and draped on shrines. The Balinese philosophy of Rwa Bhineda or balance is similar to Yin and Yang. It holds that in order to maintain harmony all things must be in balance. So white balances black, good balances bad, right balances wrong. The black and white of Saput Poleng embodies the essence of Rwa Bhineda.

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Saput Poleng

To break up the drive to the rice terraces and Ulun Danu Temple, we stopped for an unexpected tour of a traditional Balinese home compound where we learned about Balinese family life from our guide, Murya. Extended families live together and when sons marry, their wives move into the husband’s home. (My daughter-in-law can be grateful we’re not Balinese!) In such a warm climate, most living occurs outside so there are few walls but roofs keep out the frequent rain showers.

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Our guide, Murya, telling us about the family compound (notice the penjor behind)

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Balinese home

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Murya and family shrine

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Family members with drying rice in foreground

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Ceremonial pavilion

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I was looking forward to seeing the Bali rice terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop for photos and I was disappointed that all my photos were through the windows of the bus. The entire sustainable system of irrigation called the Subak System has UNESCO designation so all the rice terraces in Bali are included. A cooperative water management system of irrigation dating from the 9th century, Subak is based on the philosophy of Tri Hita Karan, which is to create harmony between man and god, man and neighbor, and man and nature.

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Rice Terraces

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Rice Terraces

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Rice Terraces

Nestled in the mountains surrounding Lake Bratan, Ulun Danu Temple is regarded as one of the most beautiful of the 20,000 temples in Bali. Erected in 1663 to honor Dewi Danu, the goddess of water, the temple consists of two small pagodas seeming to float on Lake Bratan. The mist rising over the pagodas added to the mystical quality of the experience.

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Entrance to Ulun Danu Temple

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Grounds at Ulun Danu

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Grounds at Ulun Danu

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Larger pagoda at Ulun Danu

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Two pagodas at Ulun Danu

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Lake Bratan

Following our visit to Ulun Danu, we stopped at Secret Garden Village for a typical sweet Balinese snack with tea.

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Balinese treats

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View from Secret Garden Village

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Trompe l’oeil at Secret Garden Village 

Most of us were quiet and sleepy during our return to the ship. I did take a brief video of the drive, however.

I admit I suffered from a bit of culture shock in Bali. Metaphorically, I expected a serene yoga retreat and got that plus a lively Zumba class.  In the end, the philosophy of Rwa Bhineda summarizes my experience. Finding your balance between rain and sunshine, noisy streets and contemplative temples, clear aqua waters and plastic pollution, will result in a harmonious visit. And above all, express gratitude.IMG_7943

For so much more in Bali including Balinese dance and a personal day tour with Wayan, check back here.

Based on events from February 2019.

Categories: Asia, cruise, Indonesia, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: ,